Workshop provides forum for hydrogen-based clean energy discussion

group of people talking during a break at a workshop.

Chitra Rajan (purple jacket), associate vice president for research advancement, discusses hydrogen-based clean energy technologies as an important contributor to achieving clean, reliable and affordable energy systems. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

by Vicky Santos (with contributions by Kevin Manne and Thomas Dinki)

Published December 16, 2022

A focus on hydrogen-related clean energy technologies brought together industry leaders, researchers, funding agencies and educators for a daylong workshop Dec. 9 on the North Campus.

“If you have opportunities where we can help, we are ready to partner. This is not the finish line — it is just the start. We’re ready for long-term and large-scale collaborations. ”
Kemper Lewis, dean
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

According to Chitra Rajan, associate vice president for research advancement and one of the key organizers of the workshop, planning originally included an expected attendance of 25 people, but given the recent interest by Vice President Kamala Harris and her visit to campus to promote the Inflation Reduction Act — which among other things provides critical funding to explore hydrogen as a source of clean energy — the approval of New York’s Environmental Bond Act, and the national priorities — and funding — from the U.S. Department of Energy, organizers decided to open the event to as many people as they could accommodate.

“We had to cap the event at 103 people. That says it all,” Rajan said in her welcoming remarks. “The fact that we have 103 people from academia, industry and government labs and agencies all here today shows how important this topic is and demonstrates the fact that none of us can do this alone.”

Rajan and Andrew Whittaker, SUNY Distinguished Professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, coordinated the workshop, which featured three interdisciplinary sessions, each featuring a mix of panelists from various backgrounds.

During his welcoming remarks, Provost A. Scott Weber discussed the university’s expansive role in exploring and contributing to hydrogen energy technologies.

“The shift to a hydrogen-based economy faces regulatory, economic and logistical challenges, as well as challenges in shifting the public perception of the technology’s safety,” Weber said. “As the flagship public university in the state of New York, UB has a breadth of disciplinary experts in these areas and we are committed to pursuing impactful research, education and engagement that responds to the most important and challenging problems that face our region and our world, including climate change, through interdisciplinary collaboration and multiple partnerships.”

In addition, the university is also looking at the potential role that hydrogen could play as part of its aggressive new climate action plan, UB’s 10 in 10, which calls for the university to achieve climate neutrality by 2030.

Throughout the day, workshop participants explored what it would take to create a local ecosystem that would accelerate the transition to a hydrogen economy in an inclusive and equitable manner.

In the first session, moderated by Robert Shibley, SUNY Distinguished Professor and dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, participants explored opportunities for university-industry partnerships, and government policy and support for a hydrogen economy.

The panel featured Joseph Kessler, executive vice president and COO of New York Power Authority; Neha Rustagi, technology manager, Department of Energy; Jamie Holladay, senior research engineer at Pacific Northwest National Lab; and Philippe Dauphin, director general of CANMET Materials. Together, they took a systems-analysis approach and discussed short- and long-term goals of hydrogen, including its potential to be an important contributor to national energy goals, especially in helping decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors, such as heavy industry, trucking, aviation and shipping.

When participants asked panelists what their priorities are in pursuing hydrogen as an energy source, Holladay responded that getting the costs down for everyone’s use was something that he was concerned about, as well as “thoughtful infrastructure and educating the public about this resource. I also think we can’t let perfect be the enemy of progress in terms of decarbonization and moving us towards a low-carbon world.”

Ananth Iyer, professor and dean of the School of Management, facilitated an afternoon discussion that took a high-level look at how UB can help create a local ecosystem where the successful deployment of hydrogen is a key strategy for decarbonization. He kicked off the session with an analysis of the end-to-end supply chain through which hydrogen moves from generation to transmission to fuel cells and finally to end-user devices like cars, tractor-trailers and snowplows.

“The future is here, and things are happening, but the production capacity isn’t high enough and so the price isn’t low enough for hydrogen alternatives to achieve mass adoption,” Iyer said. “We know there are cold weather challenges for electrified vehicles, and hydrogen can be a practical solution if we can get it to the right price point.”

3 men and a woman sitting at a table in front of a UB backdrop.

A UB panel featuring (from left) Ryan McPherson, Jennifer Flagg, Mark Swihart and Krishna Rajan talking about UB’s sustainability goals and commitment to clean energy. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Joining Iyer for the discussion were Mark Swihart, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Krishna Rajan, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Materials Design and Innovation, who offered research insights into hydrogen fuel production.

Jennifer Flagg, project director of the UB Center for Industrial Effectiveness, discussed the labor shortage for alternative energy occupations, and Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer, shared how hydrogen could play a role in helping advance the university’s climate neutrality work. He also framed out the social, environmental, financial and mission-based goals the university is leveraging to make balanced, sustainable decisions.

3 men talking together.

Kemper Lewis (center) socializes with attendees before facilitating the third session of the workshop that invited industry representatives to speak. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

During the final session of the day, facilitated by Kemper Lewis, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, industry representatives expressed both optimism and caution about integrating hydrogen-based clean energy technologies. 

Leaders from energy companies including National Fuel Gas, Southern Company, Plug Power and Linde said hydrogen has potential to replace fossil fuels, but that much still needs to be done to build the needed infrastructure and workforce, as well as make the technology both cheaper and safer. However, they agreed universities have a large role to play in that effort, in terms of both research and education. 

Lewis shared with the group that he hopes they’ll leave the meeting knowing that UB is serious about partnership.

“If you have opportunities where we can help, we are ready to partner,” Lewis said. “This is not the finish line — it is just the start. We’re ready for long-term and large-scale collaborations.”